California, here we come

by Paul Larmer

The Interior West has long regarded California as the sort of rich eccentric uncle whose peculiar behavior is an embarrassment to the rest of the family. I have some firsthand knowledge of this attitude, because I am a fourth-generation Californian, who moved to rural western Colorado back in 1992. The sidelong glances I received from a few locals during my first weeks in Colorado, and the long pauses that ensued when I revealed that I’d lived in that den of iniquity called the Bay Area, led me to urgently inquire exactly how soon I could change my license plates.

It’s not that I couldn’t sympathize with the locals’ viewpoint: The Californians pouring into the Interior West were driving up real estate prices, clogging the roads and changing the small-town culture. But the knee-jerk reaction against all things Californian seemed misguided, a convenient way to avoid looking at the whole picture. After all, the Golden State has also had positive impacts on the Rocky Mountain region.

Take water, for instance. Over the years, California, like other Western states, has ruthlessly pursued fresh water supplies, even when doing so dried up valleys, destroyed lakes and bulldozed the water rights of rural communities. But today, California is showing the rest of the West how to use water more efficiently through conservation; L.A. residents use far less water than the people of Phoenix, for example. And the state has pioneered the transfer of water rights from rural areas to rapidly growing urban centers.

California has also long been a leader in air-quality protection and the development of alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power. The state’s decision in the 1970s to implement tough air-quality standards forced car manufacturers to make cleaner vehicles. The brown clouds of pollution that shroud Denver and Salt Lake, especially in the winter, would be much browner — and much more dangerous — without California’s work in this area.

And as Ray Ring notes in a sidebar to his cover story, California has become a valuable ally to citizens fighting dozens of proposed coal-fired power plants in Idaho and elsewhere in the West. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent announcement that California will no longer purchase electricity from power plants that contribute to global warming has taken away a huge market for speculative coal-fired power plants, such as the one proposed by Sempra in Idaho’s Magic Valley. It’s likely no coincidence that, just as Idaho’s Legislature put a moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired plants, Sempra announced that it was getting out of the coal-fired power business altogether and focusing on cleaner-burning gas projects. Strong-willed citizens backed by an unfriendly marketplace make a formidable opponent.

Ring’s story shows that California’s efforts to protect the environment are more than just West Coast idealism. In actuality, they are quite pragmatic. The state — and the West as a whole — simply must innovate if it is going to accommodate a growing population without destroying its natural wealth. The uprising in Idaho shows that the West is shedding the old notion that hands-off government and unfettered industry are more important than the health of our land, air, water and communities.

Sound like the kind of thing a Californian might say? Maybe so. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. Maybe the Rocky Mountain West has more in common with the Golden State than we like to admit.

© High Country News